Missouri: St. Joseph Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This city, the fifth-largest in Missouri, was the base for the Pony Express and its starting site during the 1860’s. It was also an important point of departure for emigrants heading west on the Oregon and California Trails, and it was the city where the outlaw Jesse James last lived and was killed.

Site Office

St. Joseph Convention and Visitors’ Bureau

109 South Fourth Street

P.O. Box 445

St. Joseph, MO 64502

ph.: (816) 233-6688

The city of St. Joseph began life as the Blacksnake Hills trading outpost of the American Fur Company in 1826, when the firm sent Joseph Robidoux III to open a fur-trading station there. Robidoux purchased the outpost from the company in 1830.

European Settlement Begins

In 1836, Sauk, Mesquakie, and Ioway Indians sold a strip of land north of Robidoux’s post to the United States, which then annexed it to the state of Missouri as slave territory, contrary to the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Slaveholders began pouring into the new territory, many of them from Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio, and a farming community developed. Robidoux’s post became the principal trade center for the newcomers. The farmers raised hogs and cattle and grew tobacco and hemp with the help of their slaves, establishing the only tobacco market west of the Mississippi. In 1843, Robidoux renamed the former company outpost St. Joseph, after his patron saint.

St. Joseph’s population increased rapidly following James Wilson Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California, in 1848. Marshall had left for California from St. Joseph, and the next year many forty-niners stopped off on at the town on their way west via the Oregon and California Trails. The town prospered as the miners were joined by other travelers passing through on their way to settle the West.

Supply Depot to Western Pioneers

St. Joseph, with a population of one thousand, became a major supply depot and outfitter for the fifty thousand gold seekers passing through in 1849 alone. Its meat packing and livestock industries were created to feed the hungry travelers, and the town was a last stop in “the states” for wagons, saddles, provisions, and pack animals. One hundred twenty-three new buildings were constructed in St. Joseph in 1849 along the city’s center, some still standing, including the notable Robidoux Row, one of the first examples of row houses in the West. That spring fifteen hundred wagons crossed the Missouri by ferry to Indian territory to begin the journey west.

Many of the emigrants made St. Joseph their point of departure because the town was slightly to the north and west of the other major Missouri outposts of the time–Westport (today a part of Kansas City) and Independence. Traveling through St. Joseph therefore cut a few days’ time off the journey to California. A cholera outbreak in Westport and Independence in 1849 sent even more travelers through St. Joseph on their way west.

Each spring for the next twenty-five years, thousands of travelers left St. Louis by steamboat bound for St. Joseph, where they disembarked and spent weeks outfitting for the trip west. They built tent cities, where they lived until the prairie grass reached four inches so their oxen could graze along the route. They then ferried across the Missouri. The crossing itself cost five dollars per person and fifty cents for each animal. Besides this, travelers paid about one hundred dollars for a wagon and one thousand dollars to outfit for the trip, huge sums at the time.

Trails to the West

The travelers then followed the St. Joe Road across the northeast corner of what is now Kansas for ten to thirteen days until the trail joined up with the Oregon Trail at what is now Marysville, Kansas. Later on the trail, travelers branched off to Portland, Oregon, or Sacramento, California.

St. Joseph residents feared many of the emigrants, whose ranks included many gamblers and troublemakers. City council members even hired night guards to protect the citizens. Some 350,000 to 550,000 people eventually traveled west via the Oregon Trail. The ferry landing from which they departed to Indian territory across the Missouri River still stands in Riverfront Park.

When gold was discovered in Colorado in 1859, setting off the Pikes Peak gold rush, another wave of travelers surged through the town. St. Joseph solidified its status as a major point of departure for those traveling west with the completion of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad that same year; Joseph Robidoux drove a final golden spike for the railroad, which carried the first passenger train across Missouri. The town was not only the final western railroad stop, but also the eastern terminus of the Central Overland, California, and Pikes Peak Express Company stagecoach line.

Stagecoaches and the Pony Express

As the city where the railroad met the stagecoach line, St. Joseph was a natural point of origin for the Pony Express. The service ran from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California, from April 3, 1860, to November 20, 1861.

The Russell, Majors, and Waddell firm, owner of the Central Overland, California, and Pikes Peak Express stagecoach line, started the Pony Express, with operations based in St. Joseph’s Patee House Hotel, a luxury hotel of the time and now St. Joseph’s only National Historic Landmark. At the time, the Central Overland stagecoach line carried passengers from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City, but it was experiencing financial difficulties. The firm needed the money that the government supplied to those lines that carried mail. They started the Pony Express to show that it was possible to deliver mail expediently via the Central Overland route and thereby secure a government mail contract for its stagecoach line.

The service especially hoped to get mail and telegraph messages more quickly to the growing number of people in California who ached for news from the East but were separated by the vast, sparsely populated western territories. Another group far from home, the gold miners in the Pikes Peak region, also were clamoring for letters and newspapers.

At the time, Russell, Majors, and Waddell competed with the Butterfield Route, a more southerly stagecoach route that the government favored for the delivery of mail to and from the Pacific coast. There were hostile Indians and inhospitable desert areas along the Butterfield Route, but the winters were less severe along this path than on the northern Central Overland trail. Therefore, residents in the northern cities such as Salt Lake City were lucky to receive mail once a month.

Coming of the Telegraph

By this time, the telegraph lines had reached as far west as St. Joseph. Russell, Majors, and Waddell knew that the transcontinental telegraph would become a reality in the near future, and that it would make the Pony Express obsolete, but they hoped to secure the $600,000 government mail contract by then. Because their stagecoach line stopped at Salt Lake City and the stations were too far apart for Pony Express purposes, the company first had to spend $100,000 building relay stations.

Advertisements about the Pony Express appeared in papers in the East and West, telling readers that beginning April 3, 1860, riders would carry telegraphic dispatches from New York to Sacramento in ten days and letters in thirteen days. The charge for the service was a whopping five dollars per half ounce. The Pony Express promised to pick up mail weekly (quickly changed to semiweekly due to demand) and deliver it in about half the time taken by the previous routes through the Isthmus of Panama or the Butterfield line.

Operating the Pony Express

Applicants for the dangerous two thousand-mile route, more than two-thirds which ran through territory held by hostile Indians, were encouraged to be at least twenty years old, weigh less than 125 pounds and, preferably, be orphans. Every rider was required to sign a pledge stating:

I do hereby swear before the great and living God that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will under no circumstances use profane language; that I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.

The company bought five hundred of the best horses it could find, paying one hundred fifty to two hundred dollars for each at a time when an average horse cost about fifty dollars. Many riders owed their lives to the Pony Express’s swift horses, which could outrun those of the Indians. Relay stations for the riders were constructed every ten to twelve miles, following the stagecoach routes along the Oregon and California Trails.

A train brought mail from the East to St. Joseph, where riders began the trip to Sacramento, whence mail was taken by boat to San Francisco. Each rider’s stint was sevety-five to one hundred miles a day at top speed; this generally entailed seven stops at relay stations to change to a fresh horse. At the end of the run, riders were allowed a brief rest before returning back east with mail.

Eighty young men who lived along the trail from St. Joseph to Sacramento signed up with the new Pony Express. Soon after the initial thrill, however, many riders dropped out, unable to withstand the toll taken by the day-to-day pounding along the trail.

The first rider, who was most likely Johnny Frey, was seen off from St. Joseph amid the roar of a cannon, a cheering crowd, and a brass band. The rider carried forty-nine letters, several newspapers, and five private telegrams, including a telegram from President James Buchanan congratulating the sponsors of the Pony Express. The event was covered by reporters dispatched from newspapers across the country.

The Pony Express route ran northwest through Kansas to Fort Kearny, following the same path the Mormons used when they traveled to Salt Lake City in 1847 and the same route as the gold seekers of 1849. The trail then ran through prairies for the next three hundred miles, much of it along the south bank of the Platte River. From here, the rider went steadily westward, passing Chimney Rock, Nebraska, on the way to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Here, the trail entered the foothills of the Rockies, and then went over the mountains, through South Pass, and on to Fort Bridger and Salt Lake City. The trail passed into Carson City, Nevada, through Placerville, California, and on through Folsom to Sacramento. The worst part of the journey lay between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, an area that was a vast desert.

Supplying the Pony Express

The St. Joseph store owned by Israel Landis made many of the saddles used by the riders. These saddles had a special leather covering called a mochila, onto which four padlocked mailboxes, called cantinas, were placed, two on each side. The rider’s legs fit between the boxes. Mail pouches were never used on the Pony Express. The mochilas negated the need for saddle changes. At each relay station, the rider would simply transfer the mochila to a fresh horse already saddled and bridled; only two minutes were allowed for the transfer. At the end of the route, a station keeper would unlock the box.

In St. Joseph, the horses were kept at the Pikes Peak Stables, built from 1858 to 1861 and now reconstructed and containing blacksmith and wheelwright shops as part of the Pony Express National Memorial. It was from here that the first westbound rider embarked.

The Pony Express ceased operations after only nineteen months, mainly because of the advent of the telegraph. Financial troubles also contributed to the company’s demise. The cost of feeding and keeping the horses in some of the remote, mountainous, and, at certain times of year, snowy areas of the West had not been counted in the owners’ equation, and the federal government was unable to pay its bills for postal delivery. When the last rider left on November 20, 1861, the company was bankrupt.

Demise of the Pony Express

The Overland Stage Company began daily mail service from St. Joseph to California that same year. The service, owned by Ben Holladay, followed the same central route across the country. Holladay sold the business in 1866 to Wells Fargo and Company, which moved the stage terminus west with the building of the transcontinental railroad.

Business in St. Joseph slackened during the Civil War but picked up in the late 1860’s, when Texas cattle ranchers began herding their livestock to the railroad terminus at St. Joseph. A bridge was completed across the Missouri River in 1873, and in 1887 the St. Joseph Stock Yards Company was formed.

Outlaw Jesse James

St. Joseph’s most famous resident had nothing to do with the Pony Express or cattle ranching, however. He was an outlaw–Jesse James. His house still stands at 1318 Lafayette Street, where James lived with his family under the alias of Tom Howard until his death in 1882.

James had learned to kill during the Civil War as a member of William Clarke Quantrill’s Raiders, a group of Confederate guerrillas from Missouri who ambushed federal soldiers and raided towns in the neighboring Union state of Kansas. Jesse’s brother, Frank, was an original member of the Raiders and participated in their sack of Lawrence, Kansas, in which two hundred buildings were burned to the ground and one hundred fifty men were killed. In retaliation for this raid, federal soldiers came to Jesse’s home in occupied Missouri and demanded to know the whereabouts of Quantrill’s men. When the family refused to furnish the information, Jesse’s stepfather was tortured and nearly killed; Jesse, his mother, and his sister were imprisoned. Upon their release, Jesse himself joined Quantrill’s guerrillas, likely as revenge for what had been done to his family.

Quantrill’s irregulars proved perfect training for a life of robbing and killing. The men were constantly on the move, ruthlessly striking and leaving just as quickly. In Quantrill’s group, Jesse met the Younger brothers–Cole, John, James, and Robert–who, along with Jesse’s brother, Frank, would be his partners in crime in years to come.

After the Civil War, Jesse turned outlaw and began robbing banks, trains, and stagecoaches. He was a fugitive when he came with his family to St. Joseph. He and Frank were the only members of their gang who had escaped from the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota, raid of 1876. The Younger brothers were seriously wounded, captured, and sentenced to prison, and three other gang members died in the foiled bank robbery. Undaunted, Jesse continued to rob and kill, using his new home in St. Joseph as a base of operations.

Robert Ford, a member of Jesse’s gang, had decided to betray him when he learned there was still a ten thousand-dollar reward on Jesse’s head. Apparently unaware of Ford’s plan, Jesse invited him to take part in a bank robbery in Platte City. Ford and his brother Charles went to stay with Jesse in St. Joseph to prepare for the robbery. The next day, when Jesse was unarmed, Robert shot him in the back of the head. The Ford brothers were themselves betrayed by the law officers to whom they had planned to deliver Jesse. They were arrested and convicted of murder and conspiracy. Robert Ford was sentenced to be hanged but was pardoned by the governor. He was later shot and killed by a member of Jesse’s gang.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The house where Jesse James died has been restored with period furnishings and is open to the public. The Buchanan County Courthouse, where the Ford brothers were tried, is still in use by the county. It is one of the largest county government compounds in Missouri.

Beginning in the 1870’s, St. Joseph, aided by its many railroads entered another heyday as a wholesale supplier to the West. As new wealth poured into the city, Victorian mansions were built. Between 1888 and 1893, Harvey Ellis designed many homes in St. Joseph in the Richardsonian Romanesque and Chateauesque styles, working at the local firm of Eckel and Mann. The American National Bank and the Police Station in St. Joseph, along with numerous residences, are showcases of this Midwestern genius.

For Further Information
  • Bradley, Glenn. The Story of the Pony Express. Chicago: McClurg 1913. Reprint. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gryphon Books, 1971. A shorter, yet encompassing, account of the Express.
  • Chapman, Arthur. The Pony Express. New York: Chapman Square, 1932. An excellent historical account of how the Pony Express started, how it was run, and the true adventures of the riders.
  • Davis, Robyn L. St. Joseph, Missouri: A Postcard History. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 1999. A pictorial history of the town that consists mostly of illustrations.
  • Ghent, W. J. The Road to Oregon: A Chronicle of the Great Trail. Longmans, Green, 1929. Reprint. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1971. A comprehensive account of the Oregon Trail.
  • Settle, William A., Jr. Jesse James Was His Name. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966. A thorough, scholarly biography of James.
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